Cole Swensen on the writing of Nathalie Stephens:
“Only the writer who astonishes language, who dares to tamper with it, is worthy of the epithet,” writes Nathalie Stephens, and she lives up to the challenge she sets—hers
is a use of language that alters the llanguage as she uses it.
And in her case, this means two languages, as she writes in both
English and French, often using one to infiltrate the other,
to crack the other open. Often we sense the two languages passing
each other, and as they do, a charge arcs from one to the other,
making each stand out in sharp relief.
Not surprising for someone with two native languages, she’s
attentive to betweens and uses them productively. In her most
recent book, the quasi-narrative, Paper City, one of the two main characters is b—betwixt.
In conjunction with his other, n—néant—they
negotiate worlds not unlike our own. “I open my mouth and drown, (n) had been known to say. She was neither of one rive nor of the other, and her appartenance,
while flagrantly resisted, was hotly debated, contested and denied,” she writes. Thus positioned in a middle space, suspended in the river of language, Stephens is in an excellent spot to unleash her philosophic bent, which sifts through relationships—of
language to illusion, of the body to language. Working with these
staples of experience, she develops an open-ended philosophy
of language, one that refuses to delineate or in any way to describe,
but that instead, brings it alive and puts it into motion.
Themes of desire, gender, and their social ramifications play
out in her often dense, turbulent prose passages and give them
a momentum that sends us hurtling through their lushness. There’s a liberating agenda right behind that lushness, a determination to give agency to the unexpected—to
distance, to isolated letters, to marks of punctuation. It amounts
to an exacting generosity that creates a marvelous contrast with
the sparse layout of some of her texts, such as Touch to Affliction,
which is presented in part here. One page ends with the isolated
line “And you have yet to speak.” This is an open invitation, but it’s
also an obligation, and positions the reader right where poetry
is always trying to get us, which is to say, waiting for the
Nathalie Stephens writes in French and English Writing l'entre-genre, she is the author, most recently, of L'Injure, Paper City and Je
Nathanaël. L'Injure was a finalist in 2005 for the Prix Alain-Grandbois and the Prix Trillium. The short fiction , Underground, was a finalist in 2000 for the Grand Prix du Salon du Livre (Toronto). Stephens's English self-translation of Je
Nathanaël is imminent with www.bookthug.ca, and later this year, Touch to Affliction,
an excerpt of which is presented here, will be published by Coach House.
A recipient of of several fellowships, she has translated Catherine Mavrikakis and François
Turcot into English and Gail Scott and RM Vaughan into French. On occasion
she translates herself. Stephens lives between.
Cole Swensen teaches poetry in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her books include Goest, Such Rich Hour, Oh, Try, and Noon. She translates poetry from French and lives part-time in Paris.
With an introduction by Cole Swensen
e l d ( a b r é g é ) & l e p
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